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Sand Creek Massacre site reminds visitors of a national tragedy

May 26, 2018 Updated: May 29, 2018 at 10:30 am
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The National Park Service showcased the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site this Memorial Day weekend with a free guided tour. (Photo by Liz Forster, The Gazette)

Just northwest of Eads in Kiowa County, the land is mostly barren - parched creek beds, strips of cottonwoods and fields of silver sagebrush. It's what those in the 19th century called the Great American Desert, an area that, until the mid-1800s, was largely avoided by Anglo-Americans.

Invisible yet embedded in the landscape is one of the most devastating mass slaughters by the Army; one that the National Park Service showcased this Memorial Day weekend with a free guided tour in hopes people won't forget: the Sand Creek Massacre.

"As a veteran," said National Park Service guide John Launius, "to tell the story of what the U.S. Army has done is to also tell its flaws and mistakes and to learn from them. This is one of the biggest failures in U.S. history, and we can't forget it."

Established in 2007, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and its park rangers such as Launius tell the story of the killing and mutilation of at least 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans - mostly women, children and the elderly - by the Colorado U.S. Volunteer Cavalry in 1864. About 500 of the Native Americans survived.

The tension began about 16 years earlier at the start of the California Gold Rush. Settlers were passing through the plains and the Front Range, where the tribes migrated between summer and winter. Buffalo, their main source of sustenance, were slaughtered and little respect was shown for the Native Americans or their culture.

As compensation, the federal government offered the tribes an annuity of $15,000, which they could use to purchase goods and supplies so gold-seekers could pass through unscathed. Launius compared the deal to a neighbor walking through your yard, setting up a tent and letting their dog poop on your lawn for $20 a day.

"Would you accept that?" he asked the group of 20 visitors Saturday morning. "The Cheyenne and Arapaho saw it as a threat to what they call home."

The National Park Service showcased the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site this Memorial Day weekend with a free guided tour. (Photo by Liz Forster, The Gazette) 

Once pioneers struck gold in Colorado, they wanted to settle. Another treaty was negotiated, which reduced the Cheyenne's and Arapaho's territory by about 90 percent and was supported by only a quarter of the tribal members.

"This gold rush brought a tsunami of 100,000 people to the Territory of Colorado and mined nearly $27 million in gold," Launius said. "The Cheyenne then were only about 10,000 people. Is it in their best interest to go to war with the U.S.?"

Media didn't help. The Rocky Mountain News painted the Cheyenne and Arapaho as ruthless savages eager to raid and destroy Denver at any moment.

The division among whites, Native Americans who settled on the reservation and those who refused turned Colorado into what Launius described as "a powder keg waiting to spark."

Army Col. John Chivington was holding the match, ready to ignite the plains at any moment. When Cheyenne chiefs Black Kettle and Bull Bear tried to negotiate, Chivington met them with an ultimatum: surrender to the Army or die, Launius said.

On Nov. 29, 1864, Chivington lit the flame, sending 670 cavalrymen to open fire at a village of about 750 Arapaho and Cheyenne despite Black Kettle's display of the American and white surrender flags. The soldiers scalped and mutilated those they killed, taking home "prizes" for their onslaught.

Some soldiers refused to fight. Two of the officers, Capt. Silas Soule and Lt. Joseph Cramer, later wrote letters describing the savagery of the attacks, which prompted Congress and the Army to open investigations. The event was determined to be a massacre, though Chivington claimed it was a victory.

No bodies were buried, and none were recovered.

"The fires set by Chivington would continue to burn for the next 30 years," Launius said. "Some believe this was the genesis for the Great Plains Indian Wars."

Though Launius' hour-and-a-half long talk only brushed the surface of the deeply complicated history of the conflicts between the Plains Indians and white Americans, supervisory Park Ranger Shawn Gillette thinks the site, which is co-managed with tribal representatives, does its best to tell the multiracial history of the United States.

"The National Park Service is America's storytellers, and that means all Americans," Gillette said. "Here, we commemorate a national tragedy that our country should remember."

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